Earlier this month I attended a Conservation Grazing conference in Worcestershire, hosted by Natural England, which challenged the concept of set stocking cattle in low numbers, on sensitive sites.
This article first appeared in the spring issue of the British Grassland Society magazine Grass and Forage Farmer.
Conservation grazing is livestock grazing that meets nature conservation objectives. It includes anything from extensive, low intervention schemes that meet the welfare needs of livestock, to grazing on improved grassland managed to optimise sward structure for invertebrates, small mammals and birds.
While there is no golden rule, conservation grazing generally involves less intensive land management on areas that are less commercially productive. Native breeds are often used due to their hardiness and ability to cope with the conditions.
Quite often, such grazing schemes use set stocking, allowing a set number of animals – cattle, sheep or ponies, to roam and graze over the whole area throughout the agreed period.
But is this ‘continuous grazing’ the best way to safeguard protected and environmentally sensitive sites? Even at low stocking densities animals will often favour the tastiest, most palatable plants to eat, leading to unfavourable vegetation changes.
Could systems that sub-divide the area into one to four day paddocks, allowing animals to intensively graze smaller areas on a rotational basis, be better? Rob Havard of Natural England believes so.
Rest periods essential
‘The key to healthy grassland is to ensure adequate rest periods for the forage plants,” said Mr. Havard. “When grass is cropped too short, it has to use all the energy stored in the roots and crown to re-grow, and in a stressed plant this means killing off a significant part of the root mass.
“As the plant recovers and grows new leaves, new roots eventually grow too. Where stock is allowed to graze continually the roots never get chance to regenerate, reducing the field’s ability to take hoof and making it more liable to poach in poor weather. In such cases, plants can often be seen lying on the surface where animals have easily pulled them out of the soil.
“Looking at the stock side of the equation – if animals are set stocked, they will eat all the best forage first, like the deep-rooted, mineral-rich forbs. Each day’s nutritional take progressively worsens, so by the end of the period the animals may not be left with enough feed to meet their daily energy requirements.
“Continuous grazing also prevents the formation of seed heads and self seeding of the re-grazed plants, leading to rapid changes in the plant communities that the sites are protected for. Time-restricted grazing ensures all plants are grazed equally and the nutritional take is balanced during each short period of grazing.”
Fencing and troughs
Mr. Havard admitted that this type of approach does require a bit more planning than letting stock roam free. But it can be done with flexible electric fencing systems and innovative ways of providing water. Having movable troughs has the added advantage of reducing the risk of consistent poaching in one area.
When set up it can take as little as five minutes to move the cattle onto the next patch. In the UK this is likely to involve a daily move – with perhaps a back fence and water trough moved up to meet the front fence once every four days.
“Landowners or site managers need to work closely with the grazier to work out a system that works for them, their animals, the environment and the wider public who may have access to the land,” says Mr. Havard.
“This approach is sometimes called mob grazing – although I prefer the term that is often used of Holistic Management,* because it is very important to consider the ‘whole’ system – including the economic outcomes for the grazier.
“There are many other benefits too – more grass will grow because it is having a proper rest period between grazing, the soil is more fertile due to healthier root systems, the stock is easier and more available to check, and in better condition over winter due to improved nutrition.
“And finally a 45-day rest period in the growing season will provide habitat of many differing heights and structure, which will favour different insects, birds and mammals.
“At the moment very few conservation graziers employ holistic grazing in this country, but there is significant evidence coming from America and Australia that it works, and many UK producers are starting to implement these techniques. However, we do need more research in the UK before mob grazing is rolled out wholesale on our most precious and protected sites!”
* Holistic Management® is a whole farm planning system that helps producers, and land stewards to manage their natural resources in a way that reaps sustainable environmental, economic and social benefits.
Whether land is used for food production or public land conservation, its health can be improved, and its productivity greatly increased, by taking a holistic approach as developed by grasslands regeneration expert Allan Savoury.
In a nutshell, Holistic Management® practices allow farmers to manage the relationships between plants, soil, livestock, people and water in ways that mimic nature.
I saw Holistic Management – which incorporates rotational/mob grazing followed by appropriate rest periods in Canada on my Nuffield Farming Scholarship tour.
One suckler herd owner I visited sticks in my mind. By subdividing his grazing into four areas rather than letting the cows wander across the whole piece the entire season, he grew more pasture, which was also better quality, which allowed him to more than double his stocking rate. Increased organic matter at the base of the swards and extra cover made the pasture more able to stand up to droughty summers. There was more wildlife buzzing around and the 11-year old cows were ‘acting like seven year olds!’
“Grazing makes me think a little, rather than work a lot,” he said. His daughter Ronda added that the grazing approach is a bit like using computers – it can be difficult to understand the benefits until you do it, and then it makes perfect sense.